McLaughlin, South Dakota (AP)
The suicides of seven young people last year left this northern outpost reeling with grief.
The story is mirrored in headlines around the country. The Cheyenne River Reservation lost 17 people to suicide in 2002 and 2003. During March, a high school student on the Red Lake Chippewa Reservation in Minnesota killed 9 people before taking his own life.
But once the media attention fades, residents are left to deal with the devastation. An inspired few are turning that devastation into feats of hope.
Mary Hayes lost her 16-year-old granddaughter, Billie Jean Left Hand, to suicide Dec. 30. Once the despair faded, Hayes started taking in troubled teens, leading youth trips and raising funds to do even more.
“It’s like she sucked all the life out of me, emptied my cup of life, and now I’m filling it with something good,” Hayes said.
Others are also using their sorrow to fuel efforts at change.
Take the mother in Eagle Butte who is planning an alcohol-free teen center. Or the McLaughlin teacher who runs the town’s first youth drum and dance group. And Left Hand’s death has inspired a Native American rapper to speak out against suicide.
The suicide rate among young Native American men was almost double the national rate in 2002. According to a recent report, “South Dakota Strategy for Suicide Prevention,” the suicide rate in South Dakota for young Indian men is four times the rate for whites and three times the rate for Indians nationwide.
Though official statistics for 2004 are not yet available, McLaughlin newspaper editor Merle Lofgren puts the number of suicides at seven, based on coroner reports. Many in the town of 775 people agree that is accurate.
That would make the suicide rate there almost 70 times the state average.
A number of intertwined causes underlie the suicide rate. The counties that make up Standing Rock and Cheyenne River have higher rates of poverty than 98 percent of the country. Alcoholism is rampant, and some residents say gang activity and child neglect are nearly as bad.
In Eagle Butte late one recent evening, dozens of kids were hanging out on Main Street. Many of them wore red, which one expert said signifies allegiance to the Los Angeles gang the Bloods.
Janet Collins, a member of the tribe’s gang task force, said she’s upset to see Eagle Butte kids imitate outside gangs.
“It’s like they have no identity,” Collins said.
Her son Alonzo never joined a gang. And soon after Collins became a born-again Christian, Alonzo did too, she said.
But none of that stopped him from killing himself in June 2002.
His death was part of a “suicide cluster,” which occurs when knowledge of one suicide influences other people at risk.
Julie Garreau, director of the Cheyenne River Youth Project, said the suicide victims began to take on an exalted position among young people. For the funerals, many kids wrote the names of suicide victims like Alonzo on the rear windows of their cars and left them there.
“One of the teachers, my cousin, she said one of the kids asked her who those famous people are,” Garreau said.
The danger of glorifying suicide is magnified in isolated places such as Eagle Butte or McLaughlin, where teens say they have little to do but cruise Main Street or drink with their friends.
Even Alonzo, who was trying to help his friends avoid those problems, succumbed to despair. His mother later found out he had started drinking, despite his parents’ temperance.
“He was the one who tried to keep his peers on the right track,” Collins said. “He was the one they went to for counseling.”
Now Alonzo’s 13-year-old sister, Caitlin, is facing the same pressures. She said some of her friends are already drinking, and many claim gang membership. She doesn’t drink or “claim,” she said, and is not sure whether she will stay on the reservation after finishing school.
“If it’s going to be the same, then no,” Caitlin said. “If it’s going to change, then maybe.”
Her mother is among those trying to create change. This summer, Collins plans to turn an unused room in her husband’s service station into an alcohol-free hangout for anyone 18 and older.
She plans to call it “Zo’s Place,” after Alonzo’s nickname.
Younger teens will also have a place when the Youth Project’s Billy Mills Youth Center finishes a $2.5 million teen center later this year. It will include basketball courts, an art studio and an Internet cafe.
Garreau said the teen center was already in the works when the suicides began, but afterward, “I knew we had to do it.”
Suicide clusters like the ones in McLaughlin and the shootings at Red Lake cut across racial and economic lines. One of South Dakota’s clusters, for example, was a group of a dozen mostly white youths from Hughes County in the mid-1990s.
“It’s not another Indian issue. It’s not that at all. It’s a mental health issue,” Garreau said.
Social situations are often crucial. In McLaughlin, Billie Jean Left Hand suffered from depression and family instability.
Left Hand’s legal custody changed roughly 30 times during her 16 years, her grandmother said. Though Left Hand knew she could confide in Hayes, it wasn’t always easy when she was staying in foster homes, Hayes said.
Since the suicide, she has given a temporary home to a 15-year-old boy and lets other youths stay over when needed. In March, she organized 17 kids and eight chaperones for a traditional Lakota walk to the summit of Harney Peak in the Black Hills. That brought a call from a tribal youth program.
“They were really impressed and said next year, they want to have busloads of youth down for the walk,” Hayes said.
Judy White Bull, the McLaughlin School home-school coordinator, is pulling together the town’s first drum and dance group with traditional costumes and elders to show students the “old-timey way.”
White Bull said one of her reasons for starting the group was the fact that many students see Native finery only at funerals.
“They see all this satin and beautiful star quilts hanging on the caskets,” she said. “Why don’t we turn that around and give it to them while they’re alive?”
Besides Hayes’ efforts, Little Hand’s death inspired Marcus Frejo Littleeagle, a Los Angeles-based rapper known as Quese IMC. He got a message from Left Hand the night before she died, but wasn’t able to call back in time.
“I just kept listening to that message over and over and over,” he said. “If I would have just called her, I maybe could have given her another month or two months or who knows?”
After her death, he tried to compose a song about her but had trouble writing.
“I heard a little voice, ‘Just freestyle it,’” he said. So he recorded what came to him. The words are, in part:
“Standing Rock, please stand strong, stand in the gap, even when you’re alone...”
“And in this song, we can tell the young ones to stay strong, and tell them the truth, and tell them there’s beauty in life, and maybe save one youth.”